Nine officials in North Macedonia”s interior ministry have been arrested on suspicion of illegally issuing passports to overseas criminals.
The suspects were detained on Tuesday after a two-year surveillance operation, according to interior minister Oliver Spasovski.
Spasovski told reporters the arrested individuals had abused their positions in the ministry’s passport office.
“The officials committed the crime in a manner contrary to the legal provisions of travel documents, visas, and records,” Spasovski added in a statement.
“The criminal network was also supported by a person who does not have official powers but is an intermediary between applicants for passports with false identity and officials.”
An estimated 215 people had received the passports and were given false identities, including drug trafficking suspects and other “high-risk” criminals wanted on international arrest warrants.
Spasovski said this included 214 foreign nationals and one Macedonian citizen.
The arrested officials are due to appear Wednesday before a public prosecutor. A tenth suspect is also wanted for questioning on the same case.
The Skopje government said they had received support in the investigation from the US Embassy and Interpol.
“I would like to send a message to all those – who think that with obstructions and sabotage they will prevent us from fighting with the criminals – that they are trying badly,” said Spasovski.
“We will neither stop nor waver … we faced an attempt for sabotage that failed,” he added.
The interior minister also accused the conservative opposition Vmro-Dpmne party of trying to sabotage the police operation that led to the arrests of the corrupt officials.
“This is an impermissible stand against the police and against the fight for justice and responsibility of anyone who has broken the law,” he said.